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Derren Brown Lottery Prediction – How He Did It

September 10th, 2009 at 3:23 pm

The internet's definitive guide.

So you can’t wait until tomorrow when all is revealed?

There’s a number of theories doing the rounds today, all trying to explain how Derren Brown was able to “predict” the Lottery. The combination of lottery numbers and a good mystery is compelling for a Lost addict like I am (a parallel noted by Will Howells in his wonderful song), so let’s get this figured out.

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: Derren is a magician (believe it or not), one skilled in the arts of the mentalist (commonly known as ‘mind readers’). His skill is not in knowing lots of magic tricks, but being able to perform them in a way that fills the audience with a sense of wonder rather than frustration. That’s rare – rare enough that most people absolutely hate magicians. Nothing worse than being hassled by a guy wearing a cape doing silly tricks at you expecting you to be impressed.

The fact that Derren intends to reveal the secret himself shows his confidence in that basic truth – it’s the performance that matters. One of Derren’s peculiar stylistic touches is the introduction of¬†uncertainty or doubt. For example, he told us that he would predict ‘at least 5′ of the numbers, then makes a big play of looking anxious, nervous and uncertain throughout. It works a charm – rather than feeling like you’re watching someone rub your face in how awesome they are, you feel like you’re being involved with someone doing an experiment and, as an audience member, you become involved in wanting Derren to succeed.

It also adds a bit of dramatic tension. If you saw the Russian Roulette programme, there was absolutely no doubt what-so-ever that the person loading the gun would put the bullet in chamber 1, yet Derren deliberately fires the gun incorrectly on the 5th chamber and begins to visibly sweat and panic as he ‘realises’ he’s wrong, adding enormously to the drama of the event. It may seem dishonest, but in reality this actually respects the audience more – it shows he cares about entertaining us.

Second, he can’t really predict the lottery. No matter how this trick was done, Derren would always reveal his prediction after the real numbers are revealed.

This is how mentalism works. The oldest trick in the book (quite literally) involves being able to scribble a number on a piece of paper in a sealed envelope in front of an audience without them realising what you’re doing. Use your imagination to work out how that might be achieved. A bog standard mentalist would claim to be able to read your mind – ‘think of a number.. have you thought of one? What is that number? Would you care to open this envelope?’ and the audience, having seen this trick a million times, yawns sleepily.

A Derren Brown version of the same trick would invite an audience member to read his mind. ‘Okay, this might not work but we’ll have a go… cripes… okay so I’ve written a number on this piece of paper, let’s just seal it up.. okay… now, look at me. You’re going to read my mind.. you CAN do it… try to let the numbers flow into … no, not those numbers, start again… or those… okay, right, you’re on the right lines now. Okay lock it in… what number am I thinking?’

See, it’s a subtle difference, but it’s the difference between entertainment and boring old magic.

So the Lottery Prediction… no envelopes there. There’s only two possible ways for him to achieve this result. One is that the numbers were printed on the balls during the performance. Let’s rule this out – if he’s going to show us how this trick is done, that’d make a pretty boring show. Gimmicked balls? Unforgivable.

The other way is using camera tricks. Close observation of the footage has revealed some quirks. For example, at the very beginning Derren cuts to a remote camera and waves at it. This is the point at which the real¬†live broadcast begins. Before this point, you’re watching something recorded earlier to conceal the fact that the camera used to film the broadcast is mounted on a tripod (that’s the ‘misdirection’ part) .. and not handheld as we’re led to believe from the first few seconds of the broadcast.

So, it opens with pre-recorded handheld footage of Derren, then cuts to pre-recorded wide shot of the studio showing Derren and cameraman with handheld camera, then it cuts to the live broadcast with a mounted camera with fake camera shake added for effect. I encourage you to compare the motion of the camera in the first few seconds and part during the draw itself – the motion goes from organic, normal professional cameraman movement then robotic mechanical movements later. Misdirection!

With a mounted camera, many more solutions for this puzzle become possible – split screen effects, digital masking – even conventional illusionist techniques involving mirrors. Being able to conceal what’s really happening to the balls makes it possible to swap them for balls with the correct numbers right in front of us.

The problem is that these sorts of tricks are completely obvious to hardened TV viewers and the sort of technically savvy studenty types that worship the ground Derren walks on, so The ‘hand held camera’ effect is Derren’s way of putting you in the mindset that you’re watching something live, simple and completely free of trickery – how can you do a split-screen effect live with a handheld camera? (answer: you can’t)

I’m not going to speculate on the exact method of hiding what was really going on with the balls, because truth is I want Derren to surprise us. One thing that we can be sure of is this – he’ll have no intention of using this trick again, that it’ll have been invented by him purely for this one event, and that no poor hapless magicians are going to find themselves struggling to fill a huge 6-balls shaped hole in their routine.

Credit where credit’s due – the BBC would kill to be able to make their real lottery broadcasts this interesting.

Update: Notorious internet Animator Cyriak has come to the same conclusion.. and, in fact, demonstrated it working:

Update: This video, if anything, makes the point – it’s the performance that’s the real magic.

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